I was. But I had no time to dwell on it. I was rapidly running out of things to ask about the Rider’s garb, and I’d scarcely begun working up to what I needed to know.
It doesn’t upset them, then, when strangers are about ... doing things they’re not used to? Even if I were to start ringing bells, say, or yelling or screaming?”
The Rider spit into his firepit and dipped another goblet of wine from the cask, sucking it down in a single breath. “Upset? Do you think these are Senai ladies? There’s nothing in the world can upset a dragon. Can you upset a volcano? Can you disturb a lightning bolt? Can you offend a whirlwind? They do what they do, and lucky for you and everyone like you, I and my brothers don’t let them do it unless we tell them.” He turned his spit once again, then settled himself, still naked, on his bed of furs, sucking down yet another cup of wine.
I wanted to scream at the man. I wanted to ask him why Callia lay dead, and Gerald and Gwaithir and Alys, and all the rest. Nothing made sense. I’d never been closer to a dragon than the rim of this very valley. I’d never touched a rider until my feeble attempt on Callia’s attacker. I’d never done anything they could consider a threat. Anything.
“Aye,” I said. “The Riders protect us all ... even the vile Florin spawn who sits out there in the center of all this.” I pulled on my boots as if to go, then stood up waving my hand at the wintry desolation. “How is it done ... to keep a hostage alive out there with the dragons?”
Zengal belched and shrugged. “We make another ring,” he said, his words slurred with drink. “Three of us with the brat every hour of every day. Damned waste of time playing nursemaid. They always end up dead, after all.” He stroked the golden cup in his hand and turned it so the firelight made the jewels gleam. “But the rewards are fine enough.”
“I heard a story once that a hostage escaped from a dragon camp, right past the beasts. How could –”
In a move so light and quick as to belie his size and state of drunkenness, the naked Rider pinned me to the stone wall with a callused hand
(from a 2011 edition that seems to be out of print)
So, the book is called Song of the Beast, and on page 82 we find that Dragon Riders are piggish, violent, arrogant guys who killed some people our hero liked and are more than happy to gloat about dominating the creatures they use as weapons. Knowing no more than this, I can predict that the overall plot of the novel builds toward a revelation that the dragons are actually intelligent and nice, after which the hero finds a way to free them from their unjust servitude.
Right off the bat, this violates one of my key expectations of a good page 82: it shouldn’t make me feel like I can predict pages 1 through 81 with any certainty whatsoever. Sure, I don’t know the details of who Callia, Gerald, Gwaithir and Alys are, but they’re probably some friends or family members who got burned up by the dragons, and since the narrator seems to think that the attack had something to do the Riders holding something against him, he’s obviously on a quest to set things right. No, I don’t know how the Riders control their beasts, or exactly what their role is in society as a whole. But there’s no mistaking the fact that they’re a bunch of a-holes, and that the social structure permits or even encourages them to be a-holes.
I am made curious by the seeming contempt with which the Rider views the dragons. Knights of old certainly respected and valued their horses, and obviously a creature as powerful as a dragon would seem to merit some kind of reverence, especially if your livelihood depends on it. But I’m also made dubious by the Rider’s attitude. If the dragons really are intelligent and capable of “song” as the title implies, then wouldn’t someone in close proximity to them have to be pretty dumb not to recognize that?
Onward, then, to our narrator. What do I know about him by the end of the page? Well, he’s aggrieved at the Riders and is trying to find out why they killed his friends/family. He’s here on some kind of false pretenses, spying and probing for information. But ... he doesn’t seem to be very good at it. Even without knowing what’s gone before, it seems a little over-obvious to be asking repeatedly about hostages and how hostages might escape from dragons when you’re dealing with somebody whose job is apparently watching over the hostages. And sure enough, by the end of the page the Rider is at the guy’s throat. So our hero is brave and determined, but maybe not that competent. Whether he’s likeable, I have no idea.
The quality of the writing seems okay. It’s mostly dialogue, and a lot of that is heavy-handedly intended to make the Rider out to be a jerk, clearly. I can’t help but notice the writer’s use of “sucking down” twice to describe how the guy drinks. Did she not have a thesaurus to remind her of the words “chugging” or “guzzling”? Also, if you suck liquid down “with a single breath,” that means you’re aspirating it and trying to drown yourself. What she really means is “without pausing for breath.”
All in all, I end up curious about a world where dragons are apparently crude weapons of war or terror, viewed perhaps with fear but without admiration or esteem. Use of dragons as the tools of thugs is a novel idea to me, so I’m motivated to find out more. But my expectations for the book as a whole are not necessarily through the roof.